Detective Searches for Blue Ridge Culture

Americana, Hometown Heroes, People, Traditions
on November 19, 2000

Roddy Moore is a detective, but he doesn’t solve crimes or locate lost people. As director of the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum at Ferrum College in Ferrum, Va., he looks for missing pieces of Blue Ridge culture. Like most detectives, he enjoys the thrill of the chase as much as the actual find.

“We just finished research on the history of the banjo in Virginia, and the exhibit is up now,” says Moore, still noticeably excited as he recalls that project. “Several books say the instrument wasn’t here until after the Civil War, but we found proof it was here in the 1840s. That felt really good.”

For more than two decades, Moore has documented, interpreted, and presented the traditional life and culture of the Blue Ridge region of Virginia. At the Blue Ridge Institute, designated the State Center for Blue Ridge Folklore by the Virginia General Assembly in 1986, he and his staff prepare exhibits on regional folkways, past and present—including food, material objects, and music. Previous exhibits have focused on old-time musical instrument-making, early Virginia African-American recording artists, folk canes and walking sticks, folk toys, Virginia ballads, heirloom apple traditions, and folk carvings.

“We do an awful lot of work with traditional music,” says Moore. They aren’t trying to preserve Blue Ridge traditions, however; they simply want to record them before they become extinct.

“If we understand our community, we can better understand what we do, and it’s easier to understand our community if we understand the people who settled it,” he explains.

Deciding what to document can be a tough decision, according to Moore. “A lot of times, you’re looking for something, and you stumble on something else,” he says. “In the 1980s, we did a statewide survey on different types of music. Midway through, we found that a small accordion had been very popular among the black community from the turn of century up to the 1920s and 1930s. Only three people were still playing it. They were all elderly, and their tradition wasn’t being passed on, so we recorded them.”

Moore has been fascinated with the past since he was a boy. After majoring in history and sociology in college, he worked at Colonial Williamsburg, where he became interested in researching 18th-century gunsmiths in Virginia. “I’ve just built on that,” Moore says.

With his shoulder-length hair and handlebar mustache, Moore resembles some of the mountain men whose traditions he chronicles. That, along with his own Blue Ridge accent and dialect, helps open doors as he looks for objects and talks to the people who own them.

“I’ve always had good fortune with people,” says Moore, who travels many back roads in his research. “Most of the time, I know a friend of theirs, too, so it’s easy for them to talk to me.”

Wallace Gusler, master gunsmith at Colonial Williamsburg, attests to his friend’s natural ability: “Roddy is extremely knowledgeable in all kinds of Virginia folklore and material culture,” he says. “He has done lots of first-hand field work. He has a good sense of the spirit of the material.”

Moore’s expertise has spilled over into his personal collections of back-country Virginia objects. His home is filled with hand-carved sling shots, homespun blankets, musical instruments, carved walking sticks, weather vanes, and paint-decorated furniture from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. His collection of Great Road Pottery was featured on a segment of PBS’ Antiques Roadshow. Great Road Pottery is the clay earthenware made from the late 18th century through the early 20th century by potters living along an early thoroughfare stretching from Roanoke, Va., into Tennessee.

While he appreciates the past and the way it shapes our future, Moore collects these items because he enjoys being around them.

“There’s a warmth in these objects because other people have loved and cared for them, or they still wouldn’t exist today.”